More than half a century ago, in the waning weeks of the 1968 presidential contest, a young girl attended a Nixon campaign event holding a sign that read “Bring us together again.” This would be the theme of Mr. Nixon’s speech the night he beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey and former Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
A quarter-century later, on the night of his own victory, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton declared his intention to “bring us together as never before.”
Sixteen years after that declaration, President-elect Barack Obama, who had attracted national attention with his famous vision of an America neither red nor blue but one and united, spoke of his “determination to heal the divisions that have held back our progress.” He cited the lines from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address that inspired Joe Biden’s victory speech 10 days ago.
They and the many others who have uttered similar thoughts were certainly sincere, and I don’t cite this history to promote cynicism. But it illustrates the difficulty of translating these good intentions into results. Still, it is not impossible. Jimmy Carter began his inaugural address this way: “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”
Gerald Ford deserved this accolade. For the 895 days of his presidency, he worked to mend the national fabric torn by Vietnam, Watergate and the Central Intelligence Agency’s misdeeds. Defying conservatives in his own party, he governed from the center, and he paid the price—a challenge from Ronald Reagan that nearly cost him the Republican nomination in 1976. To rein in the imperial presidency, he minimized the use of executive privilege, which led to congressional inquiries he could not control. He made the difficult decision to give Nixon an unconditional pardon and spare the country a bitterly divisive prosecution. His press secretary resigned and some accused him of striking a corrupt bargain with his predecessor. His public approval fell precipitously and never fully recovered before Election Day. But he put the country ahead of political self-interest.
If President-elect Biden is serious about healing a divided nation, he will have to take steps that won’t be popular in his own party. For example, he won’t encourage the Justice Department to open investigations that could lead to the prosecution of Mr. Trump. If Mr. Trump’s infamous “lock her up” chant is met with calls to “lock him up,” the country will have taken another step toward the criminalization of political conflict—a hallmark of banana republics.
A Biden presidency that puts healing first will govern from the center, as Ford did. Mr. Biden should lead off his legislative agenda on areas where bipartisan agreement should be possible, such as a national plan to ensure speedy vaccine distribution and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment. He should resist promoting steps, such as a national mask mandate, that are bound to provoke political controversy and constitutional challenges. He can instead work with the National Governors Association and set out constitutionally permissible conditions on states receiving federal funds.
Above all, a healing presidency will regard compromise not as a disagreeable necessity but as an opportunity to acknowledge the legitimacy of competing opinions, interests and principles in a large, pluralistic republic. Legal status for the “Dreamers” is important, and so is border security. Reforming police practices and the criminal-justice system is essential; so is the enforcement of the law against those who destroy property and commit violence, whatever their motives. Equality for all Americans without regard to race is a moral imperative, but Americans can disagree in good faith about the best means for making this equality a reality. A president who seeks compromise will do his best to respect his opponents’ red lines, even if he disagrees with them.
These arguments may strike partisans as unprincipled. But the country is both closely and deeply divided. Although Americans agree on much more than party leaders and advocacy groups will acknowledge, their divisions run deeper than they did three decades ago. Red America cannot force its will on blue America, or vice versa, and secession is both undesirable and infeasible. The only answer is to learn to live with differences.
Ambitious presidents must respect public opinion, even as they seek to change it. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln famously declared. “With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.” Lincoln confined his proposition to “this age,” but it’s every bit as relevant today.
Anyone Biden is sincere about “unity” beyond unconditional surrender of those who didn’t vote for him? I didn’t think so.